Friday, July 15, 2016

Ghostbusters: Don't bother to call

Ghostbusters (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for supernatural action and crude humor

By Derrick Bang 

It can be argued, with reasonable justification, that a film shouldn’t be remade unless one intends to deliver a new version that is superior to, or at least as good as, its predecessor.

The franchise busters behind this 21st century Ghostbusters failed in their mission.

With all of New York City under assault by legions of cranky phantasms, the Ghostbusters —
from left, Abby (Melissa McCarthy), Jillian (Kate McKinnon), Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Patty
(Leslie Jones) — suit up and ready their proton packs.
In every way that matters.

In theory, the gender switch is a delightful idea ... but only had it been accompanied by better material. It feels as if helmer Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold believed that we’d be so charmed by the notion of women in those iconic uniforms, that we’d forgive the lackluster directing and clumsy, inadequate script. They didn’t even try.

The primary distinction involves tone. The 1984 original’s far-fetched premise notwithstanding, the guys took their work seriously; Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson gave solemn, even stern, line readings. That contrast — their earnestness, in the face of crazed circumstances — made the film hilarious. The humor was arch, not infantile.

The Aykroyd/Ramis script also was constructed with some care, and with adults in mind. In a film laden with great one-liners, none was funnier than Murray’s response to the possessed Sigourney Weaver, when she tried to seduce him by moaning, “I want you inside me.”

“No,” he replied, after a beat. “It sounds like you’ve got at least two or three people in there already.”

Nothing in this new film comes close to that level of sly humor; Feig’s preferred approach is the lazy, vulgar slapstick we see all too frequently these days. His cast most often behaves like the participants in a Saturday Night Live sketch, delivering isolated bits of (not very funny) business, with no thought to narrative continuity.

The 1984 film catered to all ages. This one’s for snickering, arrested adolescents. Which shouldn’t surprise us, given that Feig is the guy who, with Melissa McCarthy, inflicted us with The Heat and Spy.

And, as is the case with the recently released Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, too much of the dialogue here feels forced and ad-libbed; that’s particularly true of McCarthy, who frequently flails about as if she has forgotten her lines, and can’t come up with a reasonable substitute. She (and Feig?) apparently believe this to be “characterization.”

It feels like desperation.

On top of which, the narrative is sloppy. Feig and Dippold open their film during an average tour of New York’s supposedly haunted Aldridge Mansion, with the guide (Zach Woods) getting a rise out of his gullible audience via some sleight of hand. A bit later, preparing to lock up for the day, the guide is attacked by an actual phantasm, trapped in the mansion’s basement, and about to fall into a roiling maelstrom of glowing green ectoplasmic goo. A death worse than fate is seconds away.

Cut to other characters, elsewhere.

A few scenes later, the guide inexplicably pops up again, hale and hearty. I kept waiting for him to act possessed, or something, to justify his reappearance ... but no. He’s just ... back.

And nobody — not Feig, not Dippold, nor any of the film’s 12 (!) producers — thought that little hiccup might need some attention?

That’s just for openers. Things don’t improve.

The story opens as university physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), on the verge of achieving tenure, loses her credibility with the Internet resurrection of a long-ago book on paranormal activity, co-authored with estranged childhood friend Abby Yates (McCarthy). Dismissed from her job, Erin has no choice but to join Abby and her even more eccentric new colleague, Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), in their quest to prove — scientifically, and beyond all doubt — the existence of ghosts.

They don’t have long to wait. A visit to the aforementioned Aldridge Mansion immediately provides a ghostly encounter, along with a vomited, Exorcist-level torrent of green slime. (As a further indication of Feig’s sensibilities, he repeatedly douses his cast members with this stuff, much like Nickelodeon’s kid-oriented “slime time” attacks.)

A second encounter, in a subway tunnel, introduces the fledgling team to their fourth and final member: amateur New York City historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). She’s more down to the earth than the others, tolerating their pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo with raised eyebrows and healthy skepticism, but nonetheless accepting the spectral evidence of her own eyes.

Having set up operations in a ramshackle apartment above a seedy Chinese restaurant, the newly anointed Ghostbusters hire a receptionist: Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), an enthusiastic, dim-bulb hunk utterly incapable of the job’s responsibilities. Not that this matters, since Erin regards him as delectable eye-candy (the cherry on top of this film’s role reversals).

It turns out that the city’s nasty apparitions are being “released” from their otherworldly purgatory by Rowan North (Neil Casey), a belittled and humiliated hotel maintenance man determined to exact revenge for a lifetime of slights. He has been planting weird ecto-electronic gizmos throughout Manhattan, along the city’s ancient mystical “ley lines”; once he completes the pattern, hoards of vengeful phantasms will be unleashed on New York’s unsuspecting citizens.

Worse yet, Erin and Abby discover that Rowan has developed his gadgets with the technology he learned from reading their book ... which makes him their responsibility.

All of which is a reasonable premise on which to hang a popcorn movie plot; too bad Feig and Dippold couldn’t execute it better.

McCarthy doesn’t bother acting; she simply recycles the signature shtick that has become her go-to persona in so many recent films. Abby is arrogant, defensive, smug and sarcastic: not for any reason, but just because that’s what McCarthy does ... and we’re long past the sell-by date for this all too familiar behavior. Her efforts here are tiresome, pretty much from the moment we meet her.

Wiig does a bit better, since she’s the “serious” one; Erin is granted the luxury of some actual character development, when she reluctantly abandons her efforts at scientific legitimacy in favor of drinking the Kool-Aid. Wiig’s simpering, fluttering-eyelash glances in Kevin’s direction also are cute.

Holtzmann’s technical expertise is a hoot, each time she cobbles together and explains her ever-evolving proton pack and ghost-catching gadgets. The devices themselves are a wonderful blend of home-grown and cutting-edge technology: weapons and protective gear that appears to have been kludged together in somebody’s basement. (Production designer Jefferson Sage, take a bow.)

McKinnon’s rapid-fire techno-babble explanations of said gadgets are quite funny ... far funnier, sadly, than her attempts at physical humor. Holtzmann frequently hops, skips and jumps about like a woman with fire ants in her pants, blending these random antics with equally bizarre and arbitrary expressions. She’s distracting, like a back-row fifth grader who constantly disrupts the entire class.

Jones, in great contrast, is a force of nature. Patty is hilarious throughout, with Jones’ line readings vastly superior to everybody else in the cast. And, in striking contrast to McKinnon, Jones’ double-takes and bits of physical business feel natural, and are genuinely funny.

Hemsworth is amusing in his dumb-puppy role, although Feig and Dippold don’t develop it well; the actor remains little more than a missed opportunity.

Andy Garcia has fun as New York City Major Bradley, determined to brand the Ghostbusters as hoaxsters, in order to avoid a citywide panic; Cecily Strong is properly officious as his aide.

Fans of the original film will be delighted to see Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson, Weaver and Annie Potts pop up in brief roles. We even get a return visit by the corpulent Slimer, although Feig and Dippold ruin this moment — once again going too far — by granting this sloppy green apparition a “Lady Slimer.” It’s a dumb, pointless move that feels like tossing in an arbitrary Mrs. Potato Head.

Visual effects supervisor Peter G. Travers’ work is terrific throughout; all of the ghosts are way-cool. That said, the climax’s apocalyptic battle gets out of hand, Feig and Dippold apparently trying to outdo the original’s Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. They don’t quite succeed.

And while it’s nice to hear echoes of the original Ray Parker “Ghostbusters” theme, the updated version by Fall Out Boy is absolutely ghastly ... and Theodore Shapiro’s orchestral underscore is a dull substitute for Elmer Bernstein’s droll work in the 1984 film.

So I’m left with the original question: Why does this remake even exist?

I haven’t a ghost of a clue.


  1. When I first heard about the premise of this movie on Facebook, I wasn't one of the mindless crowd who jumped on either side of a gender lined battlefield. I thought to myself "This could be cool."

    The resulting backlash and drama reminds me that This is why we can't have neat or even nice things.

    The main problems I have with this film is that I can't help watching it and thinking about how to fix it.

    Step 1. Remove Melissa McCarthy. She's a one shtick actress with an agenda. That agenda became a battlefield that encroached into this film. In my opinion, she's most of what ruined it.

    Step 2. To keep the tone and chemistry of the original, and (again in my opinion) pay homage to Harold Ramis, replace with Mayim Bialik. Let her throw in the straight lines of hard science that she could practically phone in for a job like this. You could then take out the "Suck it haters" undertone that crept into the writing and execution and let the movie stand on its own geek cred.

    Step 3. Stop with the hate for Leslie Jones. For the film as it stands, she's really the only real redemption for it.

    The main problem that I have with this film is that it Could have been awesome. It Could have been a tribute to the legacy of the original. Instead it was reduced to a low slapstick excuse for comedy and rode an agenda train hard and fast. And that's what ruined it for me. Only war movies are supposed to be a battleground.

    1. Couldn't agree more on every point, particularly with respect to McCarthy (which likely seemed obvious). Nice analysis, and cool suggestion regarding Bialik. A nice, alternate-universe thought!